Can I give up plastic?
From housewives who recycle to scientists who dream of making roads from plastic, we spoke to different people on the chain of plastic consumption about the best ways to live with and without it.
Did you know that 43% of India’s plastic is single use and as a country we generate around 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste a day? And you read right, that’s just one day.
Governments around the world are finally waking up to the threat of plastic that isn’t just sitting in landfills but clogging our seas, killing our marine life and entering our bodies through drinking water. Many cities, including Mumbai have now banned single use plastic but since it’s such an integral part of our lifestyle, avoiding single use plastic after the ban would require a complete overhaul of previously automatic habits.
But what are the alternate solutions and how easy or difficult is it to really give up plastic? We traced the chain of plastic consumption in this story and asked a few people about how they’re living with it, without it and finding solutions to the plastic mess we’re in.
AT THE ROOT OF IT
One of the many grocery store owners of Mumbai, Mr Chedda of Chedda Stores, tells us about the slowly changing mannerisms of customers and the effects of plastic ban on their business.
What has changed for you since the plastic ban?
Nothing much. Our expenses on complementary stuff has increased since we had to shift from cheap plastic to paper bags/cloth bags. It’s difficult for the shoppers because the paper bags don't have a handle, they tear off easily and you can’t add too many things to one bag.
In a day, how many bags do you give away?
Now the number has reduced because we refuse to give a bag or because people remember to carry them. If they forget they just go home and come back because everyone who buys from us stays nearby. Sometimes we deliver. Our men go walking but it is not desirable for the business. Even then, it goes upto 50 bags a day approximately.
THE TRADITIONAL RECYCLER
Storing and reusing plastic has been habitual for homemaker Kamal Varma since it’s handy when you need a reliable packaging solution that’s easily dispensable.
How many plastic bags do you have in your house? How old are these bags?
I have collected 30 bags over 1 year.
Why do you store plastic bags ?
I reuse them. Like the milk packet’s plastic can be used to store frozen peas, plastic packets that have the silver foil like lining on the inside are used to store vegetables in the fridge, or pack rotis for someone traveling. Mithai boxes lined with a soft muslin cloth are good to store chopped coriander, curry leaves or any leafy vegetable.
How did you pick the habit of storing plastic bags?
It was always that way in the family. I've seen my sisters, in-laws and for that matter, my neighbours store plastic as well. It has been a way of life.
THE CONSCIOUS CONSUMER
Actress Kani Kusruti uses reusable menstrual hygiene products for 4 years now. What started as a way out to feel less guilty about consuming plastic, has now become a reliable menstrual hygiene solution.
How were you introduced to reusable menstrual hygiene alternatives?
I got introduced to a menstrual cup in 2005 by a friend from the US. Since she had an extra cup, I sterilized it and tried it once. At that time, I was really scared of the idea that something was inside my body. I had never used a tampon before and so this whole idea didn’t work for me then.
Why did you start using sustainable menstrual hygiene methods?
I always felt guilty about using too much plastic in my life, in order to get rid of all the unnecessary plastic I started using menstrual cups or even cloth pads.
What are the drawbacks/difficulties of using a menstrual cup or a cloth pad?
Menstrual cups so far have shown no drawbacks for me. The whole idea that sanitary napkins are made out of plastic and can be used only once made me feel really guilty. Menstrual cups though are affordable and unlike sanitary pads, you don’t have to spend money on it every month so that way it’s great.
THE STRINGENT PRACTITIONER
Manju Kumar, the president of BrushwithBamboo along with her family is actively involved in using alternatives to plastic. Together the family has made their home ‘The Growing Home & Learning Center.’
Is a zero waste lifestyle viable for everyone, how did you begin?
People say that a zero waste lifestyle is for the rich but I think otherwise, when you manage a tight budget you naturally learn how to buy less, and reuse resources. In my 40s I decided to take a year off to travel, on my journey I started to see waste, I saw how other countries were dealing with it, how island life was impacted by waste, I saw countries where waste was burned, or thrown into rivers, I saw composting, I saw heaps of garbage in piles with people living on it, animals eating it, I became very aware of waste. On my return home, things had shifted. The household was also aware of waste issues through documentaries. We watched everything there was on plastic pollution, educating ourselves together on plastic hazards. One day my older son was brushing his teeth and realised the first thing in our mouths was toxic plastic. We started to look for alternatives and found out that in ancient China they used bamboo brushes. Synchronicity is a funny thing! As we started to think about this, and talk about it, with a friend in China we found out we could develop a bamboo brush, so we went for it, we started brushwithbamboo.com. BWB is 7 years old.
What's your family's take on the same?
My family is all on board, we live and practice a zero waste, minimal, organic lifestyle. Our home is named The Growing Home & Learning Center. We also feel the need to support truly organic, ethical companies. I personally go out of my way to support local businesses, small family run business, business that offers quality and safety. My extended family is now aware of our commitment but aren’t on board, which makes it difficult when we get together.
Realistically what’s the best way to consume plastic? Do you feel it’s possible to give it up entirely?
We need to give plastic the respect it needs. Stop thinking it’s convenient and understand it’s not a throwaway item. Use it for critical applications, but our recycling has to be at 100%
Indranil Sengupta and Rabia Tewari are the force behind the MahimBeachCleanUp. Felicitated by UN Environment their movement conducts weekly clean-ups at the Mahim shore line in Mumbai.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How and when did you start #MahimBeachCleanUp?
We got an opportunity to move to a sea facing flat in July 2017. It had been a dream for both of us since we love the ocean. We looked forward to taking our pets for walks by the beach too. What greeted us instead was a beach that was buried under 3 feet of garbage. We moved in during the monsoons when the waves wash up maximum marine litter. So we were staring at a hundreds of tons of garbage. We had two options – either stare at it or do something about it. Like an active citizen, I picked up the phone and dialled the BMC helpline number. When the first call didn’t help, I called repeatedly. No number of calls seemed to invoke a response. And then, Rabia thought it’d be a good idea to perhaps get to it ourselves.
What do you do when your house gets dirty? Our surroundings are an extension of our home. We were soon joined by other citizens – some on a regular basis, some occasionally. The idea of picking up tons of public garbage seemed gross and overwhelming initially, but the sight of a clean patch was extremely gratifying.
How do things work at #MahimBeachCleanUp? What is your next goal?
Until our one year clean-up anniversary in September 2018, we used to clean the beach for two hours every Saturday and Sunday. We now clean every Saturday morning from 8-10am. We currently cover the stretch from Hinduja Hospital to Mahim Dargah. We hope to expand our efforts to cover a larger area and employ better equipment to aid the clean-up efforts. Apart from that we want to introduce and encourage community recycling. Also, engage with the government and define a timeline for cleaning Mithi river, which is the main source of litter accumulating on the beach.
What happens to all the waste that is collected after a cleaning drive?
The first step is to segregate the sand from the plastic waste. Most of the waste is deeply embedded in the sand and requires manual segregation processes. We’ve managed to send some of the plastic for recycling, the rest of it is collected by BMC trucks and taken to landfills. Most recyclers don’t accept the marine plastic waste as its covered with sand and sea water. We’re however, actively looking for ways to clean the waste on the beach and make more of it fit for recycling.
THE CONSCIOUS BUSINESS IDEA
Mandala is an organic food delivery restaurant based in Mumbai that uses sustainable packaging to deliver organic food to its customers.
What made you start such a kitchen?
Mandala Organic Kitchen was started by Mikhel and Sarvangi Rajani in 2017, they noticed that Mumbai did not have enough healthy, organic food. Their extensive travels across Asia introduced them to culinary experiences like never before.
Was it difficult to find a vendor that made sustainable packaging?
Yes, it was difficult, as there are very few vendors who provide sugarcane bagasse cutlery in India. We could only find vendors who were providing paper bowls and we firmly believe paper bowls, are also not good for the environment as they are made from plant fibers (wood pulp).
Do you charge people for packaging?
Only niche and home serviced brands make sure they use sustainable ways of packaging but on a larger scale, how does one promote good packaging? Would it be difficult to serve a big client base with sustainable packaging?
Big brands do wish to promote economical packaging but there hasn't been a big demand or pull from customers so far. But it’s not difficult to serve a big client base with sustainable packaging, in fact, they appreciate our concept of introducing sustainable packaging in the market.
Ritu and Surya are the artists behind WolfJaipur. They work with discarded material to make art installations. “Using things that are considered useless by others, that’s joy.” says Ritu.
What do you think about the plastic ban?
The ban is important but plastic is so deeply seated in our everyday lives that it needs stronger measures. A box of biscuits comes wrapped in 4 layers of plastic which is an even a bigger problem. Everything bought at the store is in plastic so simply getting rid of the last bag is a step towards it but not the solution.
Tell us about people and critics’ reaction to the idea of using discarded/upcycled items as art.
We hope it inspires people to think before throwing, to embrace the scratch, the tear, the crack and not discard mindlessly. Our work often garners an ‘I can do this’ reaction.
Where do you find discarded items?
We have a network of kabadiwalas all over and WhatsApp really helps because whenever they get something in numbers we get a message. Also, friends and family give us everything they don’t want and pass on the message so their friends do the same. We also have people who have come for our shows and then send us their scrap from factories.
What happens to the art installations after the art exhibit is done?
All the works come back to The Farm and are put away till they find themselves in a new story.
THE SCIENTIFIC SOLUTION
Scientist Rajagopalan Vasudevan a Padma Shree awardee, is also known as the Plastic Man of India because of his innovation of using plastic to construct roads.
How did you arrive at the conclusion that plastic could be used more optimally?
Plastic is a byproduct of petroleum and bitumen which brought me to the conclusion that we can mix and use it for construction of roads.
How commercially/financially viable is this for a country like India?
The life of the road constructed with plastic is upto 10 years. It needs very less or zero maintenance. For 1 Km of road, 1 tonne of plastic is required which saves 1 tonne of bitumen. It also costs a lot less than what making a normal road would cost.
Is plastic the enemy or our lack of recycling and disposal?
Plastics can be either recycled or reused so I would say, plastic is poor man’s friend and common man’s need.
What led you to research plastic and its alternative uses?
In 2001, Tamil Nadu was about to ban plastic. Over 1 lakh people would lose their job and 7000 factories would shut down, this led me find an alternate use of plastic. Plastic is not the problem, it is the way people use it which is the problem.
Story by Aparna Varma
Art by Harshita Borah